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‘I've no doubt that parents being forced to work excessive hours has an impact on school life’

Research might suggest that the children of “working mums” do better at school, but there are negatives consequences, too – especially if the mothers work lots of hours, writes the former Department for Education mental health tsar

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Research might suggest that the children of “working mums” do better at school, but there are negatives consequences, too – especially if the mothers work lots of hours, writes the former Department for Education mental health tsar

This week, The Times published statistics released by the LSE and the University of Oxford which "prove" that the children of working mums "do better".

Having got my mitts on the press release, I learned that "doing better" was defined as performing slightly better academically, as well as having superior dressing, toilet and social skills. The paper concludes by saying that this study provided an economic perspective on children's welfare and happiness, despite no mention being made of psychological or emotional wellbeing. (Because, after all, one can be desperately unhappy and still have the ability to tie one’s own shoelaces).

Now, let me preface the following inevitable rant by saying that I am a proud and strident feminist ("No sh*t!" I hear you cry) and therefore believe in a woman's right to choose. Whether the majority of working mums have genuine choice over their circumstances is a topic I will return to below.

I'm also firmly behind the concept of stay-at-home dads and extended paternity leave. But I also believe that the carefully manicured stats released by the LSE are dangerously similar to the government-endorsed propaganda we so regularly see about "helping mums back into work", at a time when the sort of "hard work" which benefits the economy is valued above parenting. And furthermore, I believe that parents either choosing or being forced by their economic circumstances to work long hours has a direct and detrimental impact on schools.

The importance of attachment

My objections to the implications of the LSE report are four-fold:

1. As David Didau, author of What Every Teacher Needs to Know About Psychology, pointed out in a recent keynote speech which I saw him deliver in Shanghai (and yes I did throw in a detail about the location to show off), pitting the academic performance of two broadly defined demographics of children against one another is an exercise bound to be fraught with inaccuracies. David pointed out that, technically speaking, children who live in houses with an even number on the door perform better academically than their classmates who live in odd-numbered houses. That is an evidence-supported fact, yet we'd never take that statistic and use it to insist that all children should move into even-numbered houses because that would be daft.

The academic performance and wellbeing of children depends on so many factors which might not be related to whether their mum works – quality of care, income, housing, the school they go to. So assessing according to the working habits of their mother, especially when we don't know anything about what dad, or any other parent involved, is doing, suddenly seems fairly arbitrary.

2. As referenced above, there is no mention of the potential mental health consequences. Now, I'm not for one moment suggesting that all children with working mums are destined to have terrible mental health, but what is known is the importance of attachment in infancy to psychological wellbeing, and that all of our irreversible fundamental emotional programming is laid down during the first five years of our lives.

Furthermore, Martin Seager, a psychologist who worked in the NHS for 30 years, identifies having a sense of belonging as a crucial building block in child self-esteem and, as a consequence, mental health.

Again, other factors come into play here. But I'd hesitantly suggest that having all available parents working long hours in early childhood isn't a brilliant starting point for mental health.

Of course, the LSE isn't explicitly saying that parents should work long hours in early childhood – but equally, it doesn't include any sort of disclaimer.

3. I have a friend who is a nursery teacher. The area that she works in isn't exactly affluent but it's not economically deprived, either. She tells me that four-year-olds are turning up to nursery in nappies (she told me this in the context of her leadership team pressuring her over why the children hadn't hit their performance targets and her having to explain that teaching them not to soil themselves was currently more pressing).

This makes me question which children exactly were assessed for the LSE study. They were clearly not the ones in my friend’s class.

In all kinds of scenarios, we are increasingly expecting already overstretched schools to parent children and that is arguably because parents don't have time to do it themselves.

4. Perhaps the most irksome thing about the whole "working mums" debate is that it is presented as though it is a choice, when so often it is not.

I would like to be the type of mum I had. My mum worked part-time from home for the family business and arranged her hours so that she could be there every day when we left and came home from school. She was always there to talk us through our day. We always had a healthy, home-cooked meal. For my brothers, who are a lot younger than me, she was able to spend the first four years of their life putting all her energy into parenting them. I watched her do it and marvelled at how much of a job it was and how much time, energy and skill it took.

It might sound old-fashioned, and goodness knows I'd never do anything as archaic as to say that it's the choice every woman should make, but, for me, that is the kind of experience I'd like to provide for my yet-to-be-born children. Except I just wouldn't be able to afford to, I'd have to work full time, as would my husband, which is part of the reason why I don't have children.

The concept of being a "working mum" therefore doesn’t feel empowering to me because it doesn’t feel like a genuine choice. Not to mention the social judgment I would inevitably face if I became a full-time mum, in the current social climate. Millions of mums (and indeed dads) would love to spend more time parenting their children but cannot, because of their family's economic reality.

And that is why I found the part in the research where it said "material affluence is only one of a number of factors important for the development of very young children" particularly offensive. When it comes down to it this, like so many issues relating to young people's wellbeing, it is all about money.

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

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